It is not without reason that AK Antony is referred to as ‘Saint’ Antony. When you’ve spent four decades in public life and don’t have a whiff of a financial scandal associated with your name, then sainthood is truly deserved. Last year, Antony declared just Rs. 1.8 lakh in personal assets, while his wife declared Rs. 30 lakh and a Wagon R car. By ministerial standards, Antony would clearly be well below the poverty line. Such is his paranoia about personal probity that he did not even wear a watch when he was chief minister of Kerala in the 1970s for fear of being tarred with the brush of ‘materialism’. But does this obsessive desire to be seen as above any form of inducement make for a good minister? It’s a question that’s been asked again in the wake of the fall-out of the army chief controversy.
In his three tenures as chief minister, Antony was often accused of being an ‘indecisive’ leader, unable to control either the factions within the Kerala Congress or take the tough decisions needed to govern the state. Not surprisingly, he did not ever complete a full five-year term in office, nor was he able to buck the state’s notorious anti-incumbency trend. Now, as defence minister, the ghosts of the past have returned to haunt him. While no one has even remotely suggested that Antony benefited in any way from alleged bribery in defence deals, there has been familiar criticism of ‘inaction’ in the face of corruption. The image of Antony holding his head in despair when informed about attempted bribery is seen to typify the man, upright but ineffectual.
Which leads us to the central question: is individual honesty a liability in public life today? The recent state elections saw the defeat of Maj Gen BC Khanduri in Uttarakhand. Like Antony, Khanduri, too, is widely perceived to be a man of integrity. By contrast, Ramesh Pokhriyal, Khanduri’s arch rival and the BJP leader facing a string of corruption charges, won his seat. Across the election-bound states, no one with the stain of corruption was punished by the voter, indeed those candidates with the least assets invariably were on the losing side while the crorepatis were the big winners.
Elections work on paisa power, so the corrupt being ‘rewarded’ is now par for the course. But do the same rules apply for ministers? And do the honest actually lose out when it comes to ‘effective’ governance? Take the case of Maharashtra’s Prithviraj Chavan. In the year and a bit since Chavan took over the hot seat in Mumbai, he has earned a well-deserved reputation for having kept the city’s power brokers away from the chief minister’s office. At the same time, the Berkley-educated engineer has also faced the charge that he is too timid to take major decisions for fear of being drawn into controversy. By contrast, Chavan’s deputy Ajit Pawar is credited with a “go-getter” approach which, loosely translated, means that while he may not always observe the rules of procedure, he is able to push through contentious files without worrying about the consequences.
Indeed, the most ‘successful’ Congress chief minister in recent times has perhaps been the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. Yet, as the Central Bureau of Investigation probe currently on has confirmed, YSR’s reign was ridden with big-ticket corruption. It is almost as if corruption was an extension of his ‘can do’ image among voters ie he could cut through red-tapism to deliver direct benefits to his constituents, even if in the process he and his family enriched themselves. This YSR model has now become a template in some states, most notably in Punjab where the Badal family has faced similar charges.
Is it then possible to combine personal honesty with good governance in a manner that is appealing to the Indian voter? Supporters of Narendra Modi, for example, have often claimed that their leader embodies the value of a corruption-free administration that is able to deliver on key issues. However, the recent Gujarat Comptroller and Auditor General’s report has blunted Modi’s artfully constructed persona, pointing to irregularities to the tune of nearly R17,000 crore in several projects, amid familiar charges of misusing public sector undertakings to benefit a handful of corporates.
Nitish Kumar, Sheila Dikshit and Naveen Patnaik are held up as three other ‘successful’ chief ministers who have won elections on a good governance plank while maintaining personal integrity. And yet, none of them has entirely escaped censure. The scam-tainted Commonwealth Games soiled Dikshit’s starched image while Patnaik has also been accused of not acting against his own partymen involved in an alleged multi-crore mining scam in Orissa. Kumar’s government, too, has faced media reports of lower level bureaucratic corruption on the rise in Bihar.
If the Modi-Nitish-Sheila-Patnaik quartet has still succeeded, it’s less to do with their ‘incorruptible’ image, but more because the Indian voter prefers ‘decisive’, if authoritarian leaders above all else. Moreover, on a relative scale, in comparison to their predecessors (contrast a Nitish with a Lalu, a Naveen with a JB Patnaik, a Modi with a Chimanbhai, a Sheila with a Khurana), these chief ministers do stand out on the financial integrity quotient.
It is unlikely that any of the aforementioned chief ministers would be conferred sainthood. But few enter politics to be canonised. What the Antony case so visibly demonstrates is the limits of good intentions when not backed by tough action. Ministerial office is ultimately about using power to benefit people, often ruthlessly. It isn’t about wearing one’s personal integrity as a badge of honour while wistfully lamenting declining ethical standards. Much like his boss, Manmohan Singh, Antony too must learn that honesty ends where indecisiveness in the face of manifest corruption begins.
The views expressed by the author are personal